Captain America The Winter Soldier Revisited

(Welcome to Road to Endgame, where we revisit all 22 movies of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and ask, “How did we get here?” In this edition: Captain America: The Winter Soldier, one of Marvel’s best films, is also the third funded by the U.S. military)

Nine films into its now 21 entries, the Marvel Cinematic Universe found its groove — albeit with caveats. The series’ long-running imbalance is owed to both occasionally muddled character arcs and often-incoherent worldviews. For the most part, the MCU captures the texture of America’s post-9/11 military politics, though it rarely has anything of significance to say about it. This superficiality has been a sticking point on the Road to Endgame, even for some of the series’ very best entries.

Marvel’s backdrops are politically charged, if not outright political, but the way they’re framed tends to act in contention with the stories being told. Captain America: The Winter Soldier falls unequivocally on the “incoherent worldview” side of things, however it succeeds more than its predecessors thanks to its clarity of character. It’s arguably the best Marvel movie till date, combining slick action, taut structure and sincere performances, though it’s hardly immune to the series’ political pitfalls. After all, it was the third Marvel film to be partially funded by the Pentagon.

A Shield From Criticism

Marvel’s incongruous political outlook is owed, in major part, to the series starting out as government propaganda. Like hundreds of Hollywood films, early Marvel movies like Iron Man and Iron Man 2 were produced with U.S. military assistance, which means they were also locked-in to scripts approved by the Department of Defense.

The Avengers was eventually turned down for this assistance, though it certainly attempted to appease the Pentagon at some point during its production (U.S. military equipment ended up in the film regardless). And while Iron Man 3 seemingly alluded to Marvel’s disagreement with the D.O.D — “There’s no politics here… There’s no Pentagon. It’s just you and me.”the studio resumed its relationship with the U.S. government for its Captain America sequel, a partnership that continued until as recently as this year’s Captain Marvel.

Several scenes in Captain America: The Winter Soldier were filmed at an Army base near Cleveland, Ohio according to the Pentagon’s Hollywood database (obtained via SpyCulture). In return, the Army received “a significant portrayal in the film” at “no cost to the government.” A likely condition of this partnership, as with the Pentagon’s production agreements on Iron Man and Iron Man 2, was Marvel ensuring none of this portrayal was negative.

The result of this dynamic is a film, and a series, that only pays lip-service to questioning authority. The stories take aim at fictionalized structures, while real wings of U.S. government and their military policies remain unchallenged, despite them forming a major part of the fictional backdrop.

The real-world military presence in these films is treated as a desirable norm, while the real-world problems they cause or exacerbate are passed off to fictional villains. In the process, the heroes ultimately fight to maintain the status quo, wherein U.S. militarism is framed as the more peaceful alternative. The Avengers never truly rattle the cage, not in any way that would create long-lasting change.

The Winter Soldier’s critique of drone warfare and data mining is the closest Marvel has come to speaking truth to American power, though it stops short at every turn. In prior entries like the Iron Man films (not to mention Captain America’s own debut), the villains usually mirror some element of real-world authority, but they’re made palatable to all audiences once they’re stripped of real-world ideologies.

The film attempts to use specific U.S. military methods (and their justifications) to grounds its character-centric story. However, it also continues the series’ wishy-washy approach to power by letting real-world structures off the hook, shifting the blame for those methods to fictional entities (One has to imagine the film’s D.O.D. overseers preferred the responsibility for overtly American problems be directed elsewhere).

The result, while most certainly an exciting action-adventure, is a movie whose own story is frequently undercut. It teeters on the edge of substance, yet it feels constantly hesitant.

The Big Reveal 

Understanding The Winter Soldier requires talking about its midpoint, a reveal that brings its themes into focus. Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) are fugitives from S.H.I.E.L.D., which has been recently compromised. This military outfit had a nebulous international allegiance in The Avengers, though its visual coding (and its Washington DC headquarters) make it closer to a defense branch of the U.S. government.

After tracking down a mysterious data point, Rogers and Romanoff discover, embedded within S.H.I.E.L.D.’s very origins, the digitized consciousness of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), one of Rogers’ World War II adversaries. The real-life Operation Paperclip, which folded former Nazi scientists into American intelligence, resulted in Nazi science division H.Y.D.R.A spreading fascist ideology within American ranks. As it stands, H.Y.D.R.A. and S.H.I.E.L.D. are effectively one. They plan to kill anyone who might oppose them, though their impetus for doing so is un-specific; their ideology, once again, is “power” in the abstract.

In previous Marvel efforts, the villains’ plans often had a political façade, with something cartoonishly sinister beneath the surface. Obadiah Stane sought power in the form of Iron Men, the Abomination sought it in the form of big, green muscles, and Red Skull wanted power in the form of, well, magical powers. The Winter Soldier however, flips the script in that regard, retrofitting ridiculous-sounding comic elements like secret super-Nazis, a man in a computer, and even Batroc The Leaper in order to make them part of a larger political fabric. Here, the villains are driven by both in-universe history as well as political ideology, or at least something resembling the latter.

Rather than infiltrating America from the outside, H.Y.D.R.A. has grown to become part of American governance over the decades. It is made up of American Senators and military personnel, from fighter pilots all the way to a member of the World Council. The Winter Soldier comic’s Aleksander Lukin, a former K.G.B.-operative and modern-day avatar for the Red Skull’s consciousness, shows up here as Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), a stripped-down American vessel for H.Y.D.R.A.’s ideas. In the film, Pierce has always been an American, and his methods are drawn from America’s real-world foreign and domestic policies. “Zola’s Algorithm,” the computer program that tells Pierce whom to target, is threat analysis through data-mining, not unlike the N.S.A. secrets exposed by Edward Snowden.

“Project Insight,” the algorithm’s next phase, involves drone ships picking off targets who pose a threat to H.Y.D.R.A.’s global security — or as Steve Rogers describes it, “Holding a gun at everyone on Earth and calling it protection.” Functionally, these crimes are a carried out by members of the American military, working in the shadows, killing and spying with impunity, causing Rogers and Romanoff to realize they might not work for the good guys after all.

On the other hand, revealing that covert Nazi infiltrators have been pulling the strings all along also waters down the narrative. The dilemma our heroes face is one of misguided allegiance, but this reveal makes it far too easy for them to come to terms with their mistakes. Rather than having to confront their place in a corrupt power structure, that structure is revealed to have secretly been another organization altogether, one that Rogers and Romanoff have never perceived as being the good guys. In effect, there’s little need for them to introspect since it turns out they were duped. The film thus avoids all questions of America’s role in these distinctly American methodologies.

H.Y.D.R.A., while descended from Nazis, have little connection to Nazi ideology. Instead, the organization seeks to bring the world under singular rule, without any further framing as to what they stand for — or against. For a second time in the series, a Captain America film responds to the question of who would be most vulnerable to the villains’ ideology with the same disappointing answer: America, and America only.

In Captain America: The First Avenger, H.Y.D.R.A.’s immediate target was America, the military superpower, rather than any specific group persecuted by the Nazis. In The Winter Soldier, the result is similar; the immediate targets of “Project Insight” are mostly Americans on domestic soil. It’s a horrifying image from an American standpoint, though as a metaphor, it’s largely disconnected from its real-world equivalent. In either case, scrubbing the villains of specific outlooks means the characters opposing them needn’t have specific allegiances. This Captain America neither fought for persecuted peoples during World War II, nor does he fight for victims of America’s preemptive drone strikes in the Middle East. He only seems to fight for Americans.

While Rogers battles a military apparatus meant to mirror that of America, the fight ultimately comes down to a simplistically framed binary (despite the film’s musings about the world being more complicated than it once was). Captain America, draped once more in his red, white and blue, attempts to stop the Nazis — one of the unambiguous villains of World War II — from carrying out mass murder. It doesn’t hold much weight as a metaphor, even in the context of post-2016 America, whose own Nazi resurgence is tied to unconfronted elements of white supremacy in American life and government.

In The Winter Soldier, American governance is implicitly framed as the peaceful aspiration. Its disruptors — both now and throughout history — are fictitious foreign infiltrators, who secretly perpetrate America’s real-world crimes. “Coups, assassinations and proxy wars? Couldn’t be me.”

What else is one to expect from a film, even a great one, made in part to promote the U.S. military machine?

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